More time on court coming soon for Underwood, Illini

More time on court coming soon for Underwood, Illini

CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois coaching staff is about to get 20 hours per week to work with its team. The start of official practices is now less than two weeks ago. Full-on preparation for the 2018-19 season is coming.

That amount of time might make the extra two hours each week the Illini coaches had with the team on the court this summer seem trivial. After all, the change from six hours with the strength and conditioning staff and two with the coaches to a four-four split added just 16 more hours spread across Illinois' eight-week summer session.

Ask Brad Underwood about those extra two hours per week, and the Illinois coach will say they were anything but trivial.

"For me, that made a huge difference," Underwood said. "I felt a great connect. I felt their energy. We were allowed to really teach. Even though we were minus a few — our summer session is one eight-week session, so it gets a little bit challenging to bring guys in in July — but that's something in the future that will continue to really be an important time of year for us."

Extra time on the court might have been even more vital for Illinois this summer. Nearly wholesale roster turnover from the 2017-18 season saw four players transfer, with Michael Finke (Grand Canyon), Mark Smith (Missouri), Greg Eboigbodin (Northeastern) and Te'Jon Lucas (Milwaukee) leaving the team. Leron Black also opted to turn pro — he'll play his first season for Elitzur Yavne in Israel — and Matic Vesel returned to Slovenia.

The roster turnover also included eight newcomers. Underwood assembled his 2018-19 roster piece by piece — from signing just Ayo Dosunmu last November to adding five more players in April then Anthony Higgs in June and Adonis De La Rosa in July.

The extra time on the court allowed not only the mostly new Illinois roster to start jelling but also provided more opportunities for the Illini coaches to get to know their new team better. Building those relationships was equally as important as the work on fundamental basketball skills and teaching the offense and defensive systems.

"Even though two hours doesn't seem like a lot, in reality it's a great deal," Underwood said. "Being on the court, being able to laugh and joke, being able to teach and give them instruction and guidance, that's a lot of time. You're talking about doubling what we've been able to do when you're talking about building relationships, building chemistry. Guys just hanging out in the locker room and being on the court, that stuff is vital."

Illinois wasn't at full strength this summer in terms of its roster. Higgs and fellow freshman Samba Kane didn't arrive on campus until late August and the start of the school year. De La Rosa was a later arrival in July and could only observe as he continues to recover from a torn ACL and knee surgery this spring.

Underwood still felt the summer was a productive one. More time with the team — those extra two hours per week — made a difference when it came to laying the foundation for what's to come later this month as attention turns fully to preparing for the Nov. 8 season opener against Evansville.

"Even though we didn't have everybody all summer, you feel like you're more engaged with your guys," Underwood said. "I'm a huge fan of (the extra hours). It's allowed us to teach. It's allowed guys to not feel rushed, and I felt that way as a coach. I wasn't near as rushed trying to do things. It's been a pace that's kept us at ease, but the greatest thing is it kept us around our guys so much more than in the past few years."